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August 27, 2014 / 1 Elul, 5774
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Baby Free Zone?

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I read an article recently that described the fascinating phenomenon of mainstream, well-educated, responsible men and women deciding not to have children.  According to the article, these people have given the matter a great deal of thought and have come to the conclusion that parenting is not for them.

Whereas their great-grandparents may have had eight or 10 children, with successive generations opting to have fewer – and their own parents downsizing to two or three – many couples in their prime childbearing years are adamant in choosing to be child-free.

It is one of the great ironies of life that while there are so many couples going through wrenching emotional and financial stress in a desperate attempt to produce a child, there are seemingly an increasing number of fertile couples who have no attention of ever doing so.

The societal response to their decision is usually very negative, with the consensus being that they are selfish, self-absorbed, lazy and immature.

On the one hand, they are all of the above but, on the other, I feel these childless couples are being quite responsible and insightful.  They are being unflaggingly honest – to the point of making themselves look bad in society’s eyes – regarding what they want out of life, and their self-assessment is that they cannot make the necessary uncompromising commitments of time, energy and money that are crucial to raising a psychologically sound human being.

They want to be able to party whenever and however they want to with no strings attached – and children would just get in the way.

To me, their decision not to have children is more acceptable than those who feel exactly like they do, yet go ahead and have children because they are expected to – that being the societal norm.  While some initially reluctant parents embrace their new status and are happy they changed their minds, others do not have a change of heart. Their unwanted, often resented offspring  - and those who in the future end up connected to them – pay a lifelong price for their being brought into the world by disgruntled parents who consider them a burden forced upon them.

“Trophy children” may be at risk for being chronically ignored and/or criticized, minimized, and made to feel inadequate because the parents raising them are physically exhausted, emotionally depleted, financially drained, or have mental health issues.

Over the years, I have met men and women who should have been banned from having children.  Though they were aware enough to adequately take care of their children’s physical needs, they were totally clueless as to how to healthily address their children’s emotional needs.  Many of these parents may have themselves been raised by inept or mentally impaired parents and, not knowing any better, they repeat the toxic parenting they were subjected to and a tragic cycle of damaging parenting is repeated from generation to generation.

A well-regarded educator that I know told me that growing up she loved going to school. When most children groaned Sunday evenings because they faced a full week of class, she could not wait to get out of her house. School was her escape from an emotionally abusive, self-centered mother and a father who was never home – he spent long hours building up a business.

School was where she heard rare words of praise and encouragement; a refuge from being demeaned and derided and where she received unconditional approval and validation.  It was a safe place, a nurturing place. Home was a prison – school was her day pass to normalcy.

Another type of dysfunctional parents is just the opposite – they swallow up their kids. Due to poor social skills, they have few if any friends. Their children are their companions and they cling to them.  Often consciously or not, they sabotage their offspring’s ability to move on with their lives – manipulatively making them feel guilty for “abandoning” them if they try to marry or move away, or they keep the child isolated and socially awkward so they have no or few friends and thus they are BFF s – “best friends forever.”

When it comes to children, it’s not enough to give 100 percent – you need to go the extra mile. We have all seen the walking wounded, kids who in a desperate bid to be noticed indulge in destructive activities that definitely get them glaring attention – for them even negative attention is better than none.  We have crossed paths both as children and adults with vicious bullies, whose constant criticisms, sarcasm, insults and self-centered attitudes undermine the wellbeing of those they come in contact with.  We commiserate with the hapless employees of difficult, unreasonable bosses who have no appreciation for their workers’ efforts.

These mean spirited, brutal individuals didn’t get that way being raised by loving, supportive and nurturing parents.

Sometimes a child is born with neurologically issues and despite great parenting will becomes an adult with serious mental health issues or a personality disorder.  But I am focused on toxic individuals created by apathetic, emotionally distant or incompetent parents.

In a recent article about Ohio kidnapper Ariel Castro, world renowned forensic psychiatrist Dr. Keith Abel said that Castro “was not born a predator – he became one… Ariel Castro is an extreme example of what can happen in adulthood when a child has been destroyed psychologically.”

In the heimishe world, we joyfully embrace the biblical injunction to “go forth and multiply.” Our world revolves around our children. Each birth is a communal celebration, the joy in a child’s existence not just limited to his or her family. We all embrace the new neshama in our midst – a new link that enhances our spiritual bonds and our physical continuity as a people. The zero population growth that is the reality in the secular world is not our reality. The reverse is true. We are replenishing ourselves post-Holocaust at an astonishing rate.

However, we must take care to truly nurture the young souls that Hashem has entrusted into our care. Ignoring a child’s cries while on a cell phone or computer is not the way to do it. Nor is being overly critical and sarcastic or taking the easy way out and catering to his/her demands instead of firmly saying “no” and setting limits.

In order for children to thrive and grow into pleasant, functional adults, they must have a steady “diet” of quality time and attention, positive reinforcement, constructive (as opposed to destructive) criticism that will give them the confidence to try again, as well as validation and unconditional love.

Chronic emotional or physical neglect can result in children/adults with problematic personality disorders – of which there are too many.

In my next column, I will take a look at this tragic reality.

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